This odd book is about being a tramp. Decades ago, the experience of being a tramp was not an unusual one. Nowadays, being homeless is unfortunately common, but the tramp era has largely passed in the UK. The confused narrative of Charlie Carroll partly explains why this is the case.
Mr Carroll never felt homeless because he had a home to fall back on. He never felt futile because he had a book to write. Nor did he feel without power. As a result, he was confident enough to speak with Jeremy Paxman, Boris Johnson and the police. While Mr Carroll endured considerable deprivation and fear, his literary experiment remained just that.
The hostility of Mr Carroll to the Occupy Movement is illuminating. As someone who pitched a tent near St Paul’s, he was in a great position to try to engage with the politics of the protest. However, Mr Carroll is always reluctant to engage in the economics behind increasing homelessness. So it is no surprise that there is no real attempt to get to grips with important debates about capitalism, austerity and the financial crisis.
The text is an interesting one to read, but Mr Carroll went on an arduous journey that taught him more about survival than it did about life. He wrote down what he saw and heard, but he did not reflect on the biases which shaped his work. As homelessness has mounted across the UK since his publication was released, his book has dated quickly. This is because he looked at broken individuals instead of trying to understand the evolving society which had shaped their awful lives.
“It is often said that the definitions of an Islamic government are imprecise. On the contrary, they seemed to me to have a familiar but, I must say, not too reassuring clarity. “These are basic formulas for democracy, whether bourgeois or revolutionary,” I said. “Since the eighteenth century now, we have not ceased to repeat them, and you know where they have led.” But I immediately received the following reply: “The Quran had enunciated them way before your philosophers, and if the Christian and industrialized West lost their meaning, Islam will know how to preserve their value and their efficacy.”
One of the most cited academics in the world, Michel Foucault, was misled by the Utopian rhetoric of the Iranian Revolution. Foucault was opposed to Marxism, and was desperate to see something that was fresh emerge from the wreckage of imperialism. Decades later, the temptation for Western observers to impose their own thoughts on the struggle in Iran is strong.
The current protests may well have economic roots. But they have serious political implications. It is not for Westerners to understand what these might be. The media is not a reliable source of information about what must be a confused picture on the ground.
There is an imperialist pattern of intervention in the region. Those who see fast profits to be made will always rush to judgement. Reflective people would do well not to be dragged into the position of Foucault. It is easy to misread situations at a distance, regardless of how progressive one thinks one is.
This book is about a personal journey. Triumphalist in tone, the text describes how an individual has moved up the social pecking order. It focuses on social mobility, culture and work . While it is neither dull nor dumb, it buys into the idea that the competitive accumulation of cultural capital should be taken seriously. In other words, it suggests that keeping up with the Jones intellectually is a worthwhile project.
When reading this somewhat solipsistic narrative, which is laden with academic jargon, one is taken back to the brilliant class-based satires of the past. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray illustrated the ruthlessness of social climbing and was composed at the peak of the Victorian class system. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend captured the class-based growing pains of the neo-liberal 1980s. Of course, one can take one’s life as seriously as one wishes, but the world is under no obligation to take anything seriously.
Reading Pierre Bourdieu, Friedrich Engels and Juliet Mitchell may help one to understand where one comes from. There is nothing wrong with using academic understandings of class. But to understand class through the prism of one’s own history is to miss the point. Class is about being a tiny part of a contradictory class structure.
“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, 1848.
Professor Danny Dorling takes a jaundiced view of the British housing market. Dorling shows awareness of the role that housing has played in economic crises in Spain, the United States, Ireland and Iceland, but his focus remains closer to home. Dorling is critical of the fact that housing is widely used as an investment. He connects this individualist behaviour with inefficiency, homelessness and inequality. He attempts to link the volatility of the housing market to the wider difficulties of modern capitalism.
However, Dorling fails to structure his argument effectively. A surplus of facts and illustrations clutter up his rambling text. Furthermore, the book is divided into awkward sections which mean that there is a certain amount of repetition. The reader is treated to some insights into the way some people live now, but a tighter use of theory might have yielded even better results.
Nevertheless, the book is a valuable read for people who have illusions about the nature of contemporary housing associations. The academic rightly puts the transfer of local authority stock to social landlords in the category of privatization. He writes:
“This becomes especially clear viewed alongside all the changes that have occurred to make housing associations less and less socially motivated and more and more profit-driven. Such changes include the increase in salaries now paid to their top officials.”
Euston London declared homeless people can use it at Christmas. Liverpool City Council announced that it will make a better effort to address homelessness. Celebrity Ed Sheeran recently revealed that he supported socialist Jeremy Corbyn. The Guardian has launched a campaign on behalf of the destitute. Surely the UK is a country with superb philanthropic values? Isn’t compassion the flavour of the month?
Wake up! It is only days ago that Stoke-on-Trent City Council was threatening to fine the homeless for tent usage. Universal Credit Full Service is being rolled out across the nation causing rent arrears, misery and fear. Many employers are exploiting their staff shamelessly via low pay. The food banks are full of desperate people who are doing their best to get by.
Every country likes to feel good about itself. But Brexit underlined the fact that the UK has become an intolerant and divided place. There may be lots of compassionate people about, but the state is facilitating a brutal variant of capital accumulation. And Third Sector’s Rebecca Cooney has confirmed that generosity is actually weakening in the UK:
“The UK has continued to slide down the list of the world’s most generous countries, the Charities Aid Foundation’s World Giving Index 2017 has revealed. The UK fell three places from eighth in 2016 to 11th position on this year’s list, which gauges the generosity of countries by combining how much the public donate to good causes, how much time they spend volunteering and how likely they are to help strangers. The UK was in sixth place in the 2015 index.”
This highly accessible text reads with the urgency of a thriller. As a writer, Varoufakis has the capacity to make meetings of finance ministers into gripping encounters. As an economist, he has the academic credibility to make left populism seem really persuasive. This is required reading for anyone who wants to have an insight into why modern capitalism is so divisive.
However, Varoufakis was never quite the anti-establishment figure which he aimed to be. Certainly, the conservative ministers in Brussels found him tremendously frustrating and exasperating. But the pragmatic Varoufakis was always networking to have allies behind his progressive project. Many of these individuals were far from radical as they included the American economist Jeffrey Sachs and the Tory Norman Lamont. These establishment connections were viewed with huge suspicion by several members of Syriza.
Although the political strategy of Varoufakis was undermined by Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, he did manage to help force a referendum on the project of austerity. While the result was ignored in practice, the exercise demonstrated that it is not possible to fool all the people all of the time. Perhaps Varoufakis trusted Tsipras too much, but his career in academia had not fully prepared him for the complexities of practical politics.
The fate of debt-ridden Greece should not be neglected. Firstly, it is important to be aware that economics often counts more than democracy. Secondly, it is vital to recall that what happens to a country may be relevant to what happens to a class. As Varoufakis states:
“In a sense, Greece experienced collectively the same treatment that Britain’s poor receive when they go to claim their benefits, where they must consent to their humiliation by espousing ‘affirmation’ phrases such as ‘My only limitations are the ones I set for myself.'”
The Bank of England has been conducting stress tests on the banking system since 2014. The idea is to assess whether the banks have the capacity to endure serious shocks. Scenarios involving domestic and international recessions are explored. This year, the whole banking system was regarded as having the resilience to cope in the event of an emergency.
However, there has not been much evidence of spontaneous celebration at the news. Could it be that the banking system has been supported at the expense of the working population? Certainly, the deregulated British labour market is full of underpaid and stressed employees.
A recent report has found that poor mental health is impacting massively on the real economy of the UK. It estimated that up to £99 billion is being lost each year as a consequence of the problem. Without strong unions, many employees are struggling in really stressful jobs. The latest statistics show that about five per cent of the workforce are on precarious zero-hour contracts. With work-life balance hard to sustain for many, the apparent stability of the banking system has not occasioned wild street parties.